#cwcon: Accessible Tools, Accessible Methods

This is the 4-minute spiel I’m giving at #cwcon (today! G.9), part of a roundtable titled “Everyday Methods: Tools of the Digital Scholar.”


What tools are available, and what practical and theoretical concerns might inform our assessment or adoption of such tools?

My everyday tools are so commonplace that they hedge on the mundane: Twitter, Google Drive, and the built-in speech-to-text function on my iPhone. They’re worth mentioning, though, because they’re tools that contribute to what the authors of “Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces” call an ethics of accessibility, which accounts for the material needs of students and recognizes the need for writing curricula to be respectful of and responsible to difference. This ethic connects not only to our classroom practices but also to the scholarship that we produce and the literacies and technologies that we privilege.

Even in scholarship that advocates for more inclusive modalities and technologies, the focus is often on access. When accessibility is addressed, it’s typically framed within the context of disability and positioned as an accommodation to pre-existing technologies and practices. In this way, accessibility becomes a retrofit rather than a central practice.

Accessibility can’t be ignored, though, if we want to engage with responsible and ethical digital composing practices in our own scholarship and classrooms. So for the next few minutes, I’d like to emphasize the value of the seemingly mundane—the accommodating tools that allow us to transcribe and caption, the speech-to-text apps that allow us to compose in new ways, the technologies and platforms that shift our attention to accessibility.

Accessibility, like literacy, is embodied, dynamic, and full of rhetorical potential. Accessible literate practices—like transcribing and captioning—are opportunities not simply to accommodate texts but to allow students to make choices about how they represent content, voices, and sounds and to think critically about how those choices affect their audience.

Once students have produced their videos, a basic service like Amara allows you to upload videos and assess the accuracy and effectiveness of the automatic captions provided. It’s not the most efficient, but I always use iMovie: manually typing captions, selecting time frames for each, and making decisions about typeface and font styles. Exploring these tools (and others! Windows Movie Maker, Overstream, MAGpie, Google Video) with students foregrounds accessibility as a necessary part of composition and encourages more ethical digital composing.

And this takes me back to an ethics of accessibility and the everyday tools (Twitter, Google Drive, speech-to-text technology) I initially mentioned. I’m going to just rapid-fire explain why they’re useful, specifically for engagement and invention practices.

One way I try to directly address accessibility—and that tech can help—is creating alternative forms of participation. I encourage students to use Twitter to post content relevant to our readings and class discussions, and it makes class more accessible by creating an alternative venue for students to engage and contribute. I also encourage it for collaborative note taking.

Each semester, students sign up to take notes for each class period, and I create a space where they can post them. This past semester, we used Google Drive, which was fun because other students could watch the notes in real-time and pitch in. Because these tools are readily available and familiar, this is an easy way to adapt a common accommodation (note taking) and make it a shared responsibility that not only becomes a class resource but also reinforces the idea that accessible practices benefit all students.

And with that in mind, I’ll end on a tool that’s traditionally been positioned as assistive technology: speech-to-text apps. I frequently talk through ideas using my notes app or even the free DragonSpeak app (which records about 60 seconds of speech). For me, and for many of our students, and maybe even for some of you, writing is difficult and frequently doesn’t take shape in the normative ways that we assume it will.

Speech-to-text technology allows me to tease out ideas whenever they occur, but it also offers a different platform to work through ideas in their developmental stage. I haven’t done this yet, but I’m increasingly interested in using audio to record student feedback and also as an in-class exercise—a speech-driven “free write” that may be more inviting particularly for students who struggle with writing, consider themselves bad writers, or engage with ideas better verbally. (Check out Toau, Capti Narrator, and Voice Dream!)

If we want to be ethical, responsible digital scholars and instructors, we need to address accessibility, and I’d love to hear if there are others ways y’all already do this.

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